Friday, February 16, 2018

In Character: John Malkovich

John Malkovich is a name so synonymous with strange, or disturbed, or grotesque characters, that simply evoking the actor’s name is enough to help people understand what kind of performance you’re about to watch. John Malkovich. It’s a name that speaks for itself. An actor whose skills, and inadvertent amusement, are impossible to ignore.

Five Essential Roles
Places in the Heart (1984)
Mr. Will
Malkovich received his first Oscar nomination for his gentle turn as a blind man in Places in the Heart. It’s a quiet, controlled performance, and it was also Malkovich’s first credited film role, which is such an impressive feat. If you’ve seen Places in the Heart, you’re unlikely to forget the incredible scene in which Will blindly protects his friend, Moses (Danny Glover), from a band of Ku Klux Klan thugs. Today, John Malkovich is best known for his chilling, outlandish characters, but it’s valuable to go back to the beginning and see him inhabit such a earnest person.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Vicomte de Valmont
When Dangerous Liaisons was released, the casting of John Malkovich was rather controversial. Critics and audiences expected someone strapping; a tall, dark, and handsome leading man who could be vile, but eventually win you over with charm. In short, casting Malkovich was a huge risk. Obviously, this was a risk that paid off, but it’s beneficial to know that the actor, and his director, Stephen Frears, had a lot riding on this film. Malkovich’s Vicomte de Valmont is such a grotesque character, and Malkovich melts into the role, fooling us into thinking that he really is a royal 18th century snake. Valmont’s actions may have been beyond his control, but Malkovich was certainly in full command of his talent.

Of Mice and Men (1992)
Lennie Small
So here’s the thing, there are Malkovich performances that I like better than this one. Performances that I find more amusing, more memorable, more… Malkovichian. But the reason I’m including his Lennie Small is because it is so damn difficult to bring one of literature’s most iconic characters to life, let alone do it so flawlessly. When you read John Steinbeck’s text, you form a picture of Lennie in your mind. You hear his speech, see his movement, and gauge his limited intelligence. What Malkovich manages to do is remove any expectations we had for Lennie, and see the character simply as Malkovich’s creation. And that is certainly no easy feat.

In the Line of Fire (1993)
Mitch Leary
Mitch Leary is one of my all-time favorite movie psychos. He’s smart and audacious, a master of disguise and an expert craftsman, and, most devilishly, a walking contradiction. Leary plans to assassinate the President, but doesn’t really bother to explain why. Leary likes Special Agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), but won’t hesitate to kill him. He’ll snap the neck of an innocent bank teller without thinking twice, but get angry when a hunter shoots a duck. Like Malkovich’s best performances, it’s nearly impossible to imagine someone else playing Leary so effectively. In a less competitive year (seriously, 1993 Best Supporting Actor was stacked) Malkovich would’ve won the Oscar for playing Leary. 

Shadow of the Vampire (2002)
F.W. Murnau
Shadow of the Vampire is a great movie that doesn’t get talked about half as much as it should. The film posits that famed director F.W. Murnau was not only batshit crazy, but that he was crazy enough to cast an actual vampire, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), in the classic film, Nosferatu. Clearly, Shadow of the Vampire asks you to suspend disbelief over film history and, you know, the reality of vampires actually being real. But upon doing that, the film creates a quirky yet terrifying world of Nosferatu’s production. The chemistry between Malkovich and Dafoe is magical. They banter and create, always toeing the line of director and actor vs. victim and prey. This all reaches a climax that is unlike anything I’ve seen in film. The mad genius and the blood sucking beast, creating classic cinema at any cost.

Wild Card
Con Air (1997)
Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom
There’s crazy, and then there’s John Malkovich crazy. And when John Malkovich goes full crazy, watch the hell out. There are a lot of delicious roles that could occupy Malkovich’s “Wild Card” slot, but I have to go with his insane yet intimidatingly intelligent turn as Cyrus Grissom from Con Air. Con Air may have been a paycheck movie for most every actor involved, but it’s one of the best, most outrageous action flicks of the 90s, and Malkovich chews the hell out of every scene he’s in. I rewatched this movie recently and couldn’t stop marveling at how seriously Malkovich took it. Open your heart to crazy Malkovich, and you’ll always have a good time.

The Best of the Best
Being John Malkovich (1999)
John Horatio Malkovich
I simply can’t deny it, the best John Malkovich has ever been is as “John Malkovich.” The first time I saw this film (what an experience), I had some doubt that Malkovich could play himself well. But then there he is, eating toast, looking at himself in the mirror, being mistaken for “that guy in that bank robbing” movie. This is an astounding performance of absolute zero vanity, from Malkovich’s first scene to last.

During the film’s third act, when John Cusack’s Craig takes over Malkovich’s mind and body, I still forget that John Malkovich is playing the part. He completely occupies the mind of the Craig character. The speech pattern, the mannerisms – it’s very easy to believe that you are no longer watching John Malkovich, but rather, another actor playing John Malkovich. Obviously, it’s all one man, resulting in a singular performance from a most unique actor. And so I ask, like many of Malkovich’s best work, could you imagine someone else occupying such a role so effortlessly?

Other Notable Roles
in Portrait of a Lady
The Killing Fields (1984)
Death of a Salesman (1985)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Mary Reilly (1996)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Rounders (1998)
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
RKO 281 (1999)
Ripley’s Game (2002)
The Libertine (2004)
Color Me Kubrick (2005)
The Great Buck Howard (2008)
Disgrace (2008)
Changling (2008)
Burn After Reading (2008)
Secretariat (2010)
Crossbones (2014)
Deepwater Horizon (2016)


  1. Great list as is but I would add a 2ndhonorable mention for Death of a Salesman if given extra points for going toe-to-toe with Dustin Hoffman's extraordinary performance.

    1. Thanks! Oh yeah, Malkovich is great on that movie. I would've loved to include it as one of his essential roles, but there was just too much competition. I did list it as one of his other notable roles though.

  2. The seducer in Dangerous Liaisons is unforgettable and he is totally believable despite, as you say, not being traditionally handsome. The mobster in Rounders is among my faves, he steals every scene, if only for the accent.

    Being John Malkovich is a weird, wild movie and I agree it's an amazing experience. My favorite quote is about Malkovich's reputation "what's he been in?" "he's been in lots of things, he's very well-respected!". That moment is so true and funny to cinephiles especially, as non-cinephiles never seem to know his name or the names of his movies.

    1. Yes! I LOVE that exchange in Being John Malkovich. Cusack is acting like he knows all about the guy, but when pressed, he can't think of a single thing he's been in (all the more comedic, given that they were in Con Air together two years earlier). Love that damn movie.

  3. Ah, John Malkovich. He's definitely one of the best actors working today. I think Being John Malkovich is his best role. How can you beat that scene of him being in his own head and seeing everyone as himself saying "Malkovich"? Plus, who knew that Malkovich could be quite attractive as a woman?

    There's so many good things he's done. Notably Red and Red 2 as he's just a joy to watch.

    I really hope there's a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release for Beyond the Clouds that he's in as it's the last feature film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni that is aided by Wim Wenders since Antonioni was still dealing with the stroke he suffered in 1985. I saw a video featuring clips of that song by Passengers (U2 & Brian Eno) that made me want to see it even more.


      And oh wow, I want to see Beyond the Clouds now. Really hoping for a proper release of that one. I had no idea about that backstory you described. Antonioni, man, what a legend.

  4. Yes!

    "I simply can’t deny it, the best John Malkovich has ever been is as “John Malkovich.”

    So, so true. He's always magnificent, but that performance is next level. You didn't mention these here, but I really enjoyed him in the RED movies, too. They may not be high art, but he's fantastic in them.

    1. And you're so right. Fair being fair, he chews it up in Red (I didn't see Red 2). I pretty much enjoy watching him in anything, no matter the quality of the overall film.

  5. I loved that description you wrote about how people react just by hearing his name. After reading it I felt like it could happen something similar with Klaus Kinski. Also, this is perfect: "There’s crazy, and then there’s John Malkovich crazy".

    My favorite performance from Malkovich might be a bit surprising as the film didn’t get as much praise as I bet Frears would have wanted it to have. It’s his Jekyll and Hyde from Mary Reilly. I loved the humanity he brought to that iconic character and watching him opposite Julia Roberts was terrific. It was one of the first performances I saw from him and I instantly loved the guy. That’s why I fully agree with what you wrote about his performance as Valmont. I don’t find him attractive in that way but I think he fully embodied the role and brought a special charm to it.

    You’re absolutely right about 1993 Best Supporting Actor, liked the fact you've included that link! As much as I love all the other nominees, that year I would have given the award to Ralph Fiennes without hesitation. Man, I love Fiennes so much… can’t believe he doesn’t have one big award yet. His turn as Goeth was impressive.

    Well, another great post from your blog. I could talk endlessly about Malkovich’s performances... You have to realize he's one of a kind when he even has a movie about him!

    1. Thanks so much! And ohhhh, I love Mary Reilly - that's a great, deep cut right there! I need to watch that one again actually. Very creepy flick.

      And isn't that Supporting Actor category nuts? I'd vote for Fiennes too, but I wonder if he was even in the running, given how ghastly his character is. I'd love to hear some context about that race, because in all honestly, I think Jones comes in 5th there.

  6. Ah, i LOVE John Malkovich! Such a unique actor. He is always a joy to watch even if the rest of the movie is awful. I love all the ones you listed. Con Air is one of my all time favorite action movies largely due to his performance. My favorite performance from him is also Being John Malkovich. I just love that movie. I doubt it could have been made with any other actor as the title role. Another one from him that i really enjoy that you didn't talk about is his performance in Burn After Reading. The movie itself wasn't one of the Coen Brothers' best work, but i really enjoyed him in it. No one can play angry and frustrated quite like Malkovich.

    1. I almost gave his work in Burn After Reading my Wild Card placement, but I just had to give it up for The Virus. Burn After Reading is one of my favorite comedies so far this century. I can put that thing on anytime and I laugh my ass off. What Pitt and Malkovich do is hysterical.